Yale tackles financial illiteracy

On an ordinary day, the lobby of the Student Financial Services Center is clean, brightly lit — and almost completely empty.

The center, which contains the financial aid offices for Yale College and other Yale schools, occupies the first floor of 246 Church St., an administrative building that sits at the eastern edge of campus and also houses the ID Center and Student Employment Office. Student Financial Services employs a team of 14 full-time staff members, roughly two-thirds of whom are qualified to provide students with information on financial aid, financial policies and personal finance, upon request.

The only things missing from the equation are the students themselves.

A Feb. 27 report by educational-technology company EverFi titled “Money Matters on Campus” found that the majority of college students are highly inexperienced in matters of personal finance. After surveying 40,000 first-year college students from around the country and finding that nearly 80 percent of the students “frequently” worry about debt, the report concluded with a strong recommendation that all colleges implement a mandatory financial literacy curriculum for students.

University Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said he and his staff are eager to help students get started managing their finances, but he added that his office must first raise awareness about the services it offers.

When the office partnered with the Yale College Council last month to hold a “financial literacy forum” for students interested in learning more about personal finance, a group of 40 students attended and fired off questions for a full hour and a half. Eventually, Storlazzi had to conclude the forum and agree to plan another date for later in the semester to continue addressing students’ questions.

“I was amazed by the level of interest,” Storlazzi said. “The bulk of the questions were about credit scores, income tax, IRS rules. … I just [thought] students know this already, but I realized they didn’t. There’s a real hunger to learn about it.”

Storlazzi said the Yale College Dean’s Office introduced the idea of increasing financial literacy on campus roughly three years ago, but the initiative did not begin until this semester. Storlazzi added that at “just about every conference” he has attended, there has been “a lot of talk about the need for financial literacy programs at schools.”

Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and publisher of college financial aid websites FinAid.org and Fastweb.com, said he thinks students can become more successful throughout their adult lives if they learn how to borrow, invest and manage expenses before they graduate. For colleges, Kantrowitz suggested inserting minicourses into student orientation and adding financial literacy to the course curriculum.

“Colleges can also try to make it fun through contests and celebrations,” he said. “Person-to-person is more effective than web, email or printed material, partly because it is more interactive.”

Students interviewed said they were unaware that the Financial Aid Office provides financial assistance that includes advising on personal finances.

Ray Crouch ’14 said he “definitely would consider” visiting the Financial Aid Office if he were having problems with personal finance, because he would benefit from advice by professionals who thoroughly understood finance and know “the semantics.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not prepared [for personal finance],” McKenna Keyes ’14 said. “I’m a junior, but … it’s definitely something I could learn more about.”

Storlazzi said the Financial Aid Office is working to promote its presence more actively through efforts such as redesigning its website. He added that he plans to hold regular financial literacy sessions in the future in order to provide students with comprehensive information on tasks such as filing taxes or paying back loans. The next financial literacy forum will be held in April, and more events will be scheduled for the next academic year.

“We know students don’t have the time to read pages and pages of IRS documentation. And tax returns are very scary,” he said. “We live in this world all the time. But students don’t, and they shouldn’t have to.”

Yale’s financial aid budget for the 2012–’13 academic year is $120 million, up roughly $5 million from the 2011–’12 budget.

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